Petersburg A Wet Autumn

A wet autumn was flying over Petersburg; and cheerlessly did the September day glimmer.

In a greenish swarm shreds of clouds rushed by out there; they thickened into a yellowish smoke, pressing themselves against the roofs like a threat. The greenish swarm rose unceasingly above the irreparable distance of the Neva’s spaces; the dark watery depths beat at the boundaries with the steel of their scales; into the greenish swarm stretched a spire … from the Petersburg Side.

Having described a funereal arc in the sky, a dark stripe of soot rose high from the funnels of steamboats; and fell like a tail into the Neva.

And the Neva seethed, and cried desperately there with the whistle of a small steamboat that had begun to hoot, smashed its shields of water and steel against the stone bridge-piers; and licked the granite, with an onslaught of cold Neva winds it tore away peaked caps, umbrellas, capes and service caps. And everywhere in the air hung a pale grey mould; and from there, into the Neva, into the pale grey mould, the wet statue of the Horseman continued to hurl his heavy, green-turned bronze.

And against this darkening background of tailed and drooping soot above the damp stones of the embankment railing, his eyes fixed upon the turbid, bacillus-infected water of the Neva, the silhouette of Nikolai Apollonovich distinctly stood out, clad in a grey Nikolayevka and a student’s peaked cap worn at a slant. Slowly did Nikolai Apollonovich move towards the grey, dark bridge, did not smile, presenting a rather ridiculous figure: tightly wrapped in the greatcoat, he appeared stooping and rather awkward, with a wing of greatcoat dancing most absurdly in the wind.

By the large black bridge he stopped.

An unpleasant smile flared for an instant on his face and died; memories of an unsuccessful love had seized him, gushing out in an onslaught of cold wind; Nikolai Apollonovich remembered a certain foggy night; on that night he had leaned over the railing; turned round and seen that there was no one there; raised his leg; and in a sleek rubber galosh brought it over the railing, and … remained like that: with raised leg; it seemed that consequences ought to have ensued; but … Nikolai Apollonovich continued to stand with raised leg. A few moments later Nikolai Apollonovich had lowered his leg.

It was then that an ill-considered plan had matured within him: to give a dreadful promise to a certain frivolous party.

Remembering now this unsuccessful action of his, Nikolai Apolonovich smiled in a most unpleasant manner, presenting a rather ridiculous figure: tightly wrapped in the greatcoat, he appeared stooping and rather awkward with his long wing of greatcoat dancing in the wind; with such an aspect did he turn on to the Nevsky; it was beginning to get dark; here and there in a shop’s display window gleamed a light.

‘A handsome fellow,’ was constantly heard around Nikolai Apollonovich.

‘An antique mask …’

‘The Apollo Belvedere.’

‘A handsome fellow …’

In all probability the ladies he encountered spoke of him thus.

‘That pallor of his face …’

‘That marble profile …’

‘Divine …’

In all probability the ladies he encountered spoke of him thus.

But if Nikolai Apollonovich had wished to enter into conversation with the ladies, the ladies would have said to themselves:

‘An ugly monster …’

Where from an entrance porch two melancholic lions place paw on grey granite paw, – there, by that place, Nikolai Apollonovich stopped and was surprised to see behind him the back of a passing officer; tripping over the skirts of his greatcoat, he began to catch the officer up:

‘Sergei Sergeyevich?’

The officer (a tall, blond fellow with a little pointed beard) turned round and with a shade of annoyance watched expectantly through the blue lenses of his spectacles as, tripping over the skirts of his greatcoat, clumsily towards him trailed a diminutive and student-like figure from a familiar place where from an entrance porch two melancholic lions with sleek granite manes mockingly place paw upon paw. For an instant some kind of thought seemed to strike the officer’s face; from the expression of his trembling lips one might have thought that the officer was excited; he seemed to be hesitating: should he recognize or not?

‘Er … hello … Where are you going?’

‘I have to go to Panteleimonovskaya,’ Nikolai Apollonovich lied, in order to be able to walk along the Moika with the officer.

‘Let’s go together, if you like …’

‘Where are you going?’ Nikolai Apollonovich lied a second time, in order to be able to walk along the Moika with the officer.

‘I’m going home.’

‘That’s on our way, then.’

Between the windows of the yellow, official building, above both of them, hung rows of stone lions’ faces; each face hung above a coat of arms that was entwined with a stone garland.

As if trying not to touch on some painful past, they both, interrupting each other, began to talk concernedly to one another: about the weather, about how the disturbances of recent weeks had affected Nikolai Apollonovich’s philosophical work, about the cases of swindling that the officer had uncovered in the provisions commission (the officer was in charge of provisions somewhere out there).

Thus did they talk all the way.

And there was the Moika already: the same bright, three-storeyed building of the Alexandrine era; and the same stripe of ornamental stucco above the second storey; circle after circle; and in the circle a Roman helmet on crossed swords. They had already passed the building; there after the building was a house; and there – windows … The officer stopped outside the house and for some reason suddenly flushed; and, having flushed, said:

‘Well, goodbye … are you going further? …’

Nikolai Apollonovich’s heart began to thump violently: he was getting ready to ask something; and – no, he did not ask; now he stood alone in front of the slammed door; memories of an unsuccessful love, or more correctly – sensual attraction – these memories seized him; and more violently did the bluish veins at his temples begin to throb; now he was considering his revenge: outrage at the emotions of the lady who had wounded him and who lived through this entrance porch; he had been considering his revenge for about a month now; and – for the moment about this not a word!

The same bright, five-columned building with a stripe of ornamental stucco; circle after circle; and in the circle a Roman helmet on crossed swords.

In the evening the prospect is suffused with a fiery murk. Regularly in the centre rise the apples of the electric lights. While along the sides plays the variable lustre of signs; here, here and here rubies of lights suddenly flare; there – emeralds flare. An instant: the rubies are there; while the emeralds are here, here and here.

In the evening the Nevsky is suffused with a fiery murk. And the walls of many houses burn with a diamond light: words formed from diamonds brightly scintillate: ‘Coffee House’, ‘Farce’, ‘Tate Diamonds’, ‘Omega Watches’. Greenish by day, but now effulgent, a display window opens wide on the Nevsky its fiery maw: everywhere there are tens, hundreds of infernal fiery maws: these maws agonizingly disgorge on to the flagstones their brilliant white light; they spew a turbid wetness like fiery rust. And the prospect is gnawed to shreds by rust. The white brilliance falls on bowlers, top hats, feathers; the white brilliance rushes onwards, towards the centre of the prospect, shoving aside the evening darkness from the pavement: and the evening wetness dissolves above the Nevsky in glitterings, forming a dim, bloody-yellowish lees made of blood and mud. Thus from the Finnish marshes the city will show you the site of its mad way of life as a red, red stain: and that stain is soundlessly seen from the distance in the dark-coloured night. As you journey through our immense motherland, from the distance you will see a stain of red blood rising into the dark-coloured night; in fear you will say: ‘Is that not the place of the fires of Gehenna over there?’ You will say it – and will go trudging off into the distance: you will try to avoid the place of Gehenna.

But if, reckless reader, you dared to walk towards Gehenna, the brightly-bloody brilliance that horrified you from the distance would slowly dissolve into a whitish, not entirely pure radiance, surround you with many-lighted houses, – and that is all: in the end it would disintegrate into a great multitude of lights.

And there would be no Gehenna.

Nikolai Apollonovich did not see the Neva, in his eyes he still saw that same little house: the windows, the shadows behind the windows; behind the windows, perhaps, merry voices: the voice of the Yellow Cuirassier, Baron Ommau-Ommergau; of the Blue Cuirassier, Count Aven and her – her voice … Here sits Sergei Sergeich, the officer, inserting into his merry jokes perhaps:

‘Oh, I’ve just been out walking with Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov …’